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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim/ Rosh Hashanah: No one is too bad, and no one is too good
"You will take it to heart among all the nations where G'd has dispersed you, and you will return to HASHEM your G'd." The main focus of our prayers on the Day of Judgment is asking G'd to restore His kingdom on earth. It would be petty to make personal requests on Rosh Hashanah. The Shunammite woman said to Elisha that he should pray not just for her but for the whole nation. When a person repents, G'd is prepared to forgive. There are four main components to the process of repentance. No one is too far away or has sinned too much that the Gates of Repentance are closed. No one is too good to have the need to repent.
Every year we read Parashas Nitzavim before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. This is very appropriate, for this parasha deals with the mitzvah of doing teshuva (to repent). As it says: (Devarim 30:1-2) "And it will be when all these come upon you, the blessing and the curse … and you will take it to heart among all the nations where G'd has dispersed you, and you will return to HASHEM your G'd, and you will listen to His voice … "
Restore G'd's kingdom
When we analyse our prayers on Rosh Hashanah we may be surprised that on this Day of Judgment the focus of our prayers does not deal with repenting for our mistakes and asking for forgiveness. Neither do our prayers deal with personal requests. In the few requests that we do make, we ask on behalf of the community rather than on a personal level. The main focus of our prayers on this special day is asking G'd to restore His kingdom on earth, which will take place with the coming of Mashiach. We describe how at that time the honour of the Jewish people will be restored, the righteous will rejoice, and the universal kingship of G'd will be accepted by all nations.
On Rosh Hashanah, G'd judges and decides how to deal with every individual and every community worldwide for the coming year. The exaltedness of this opportunity is so great that it would be petty to make personal requests. It is comparable to someone who has been given a private audience with the President of the United States, and instead of utilizing the opportunity to request something for the whole population, just presents his own personal agenda. In addition, G'd's judgment is actually influenced by the requests we make. As we say daily, in Ashrei: (Psalms 145:16) "You open Your hand and satisfy the wish of every living thing." The Midrash Rabba (Shemos 25:3) comments that this verse does not say that G'd satisfies everyone with food; rather, it says that everyone will be satisfied with whatever they wish. G'd's blessings depend on our perceptions and priorities. On Rosh Hashanah, we have an opportunity to request that the whole world shall reach its purpose, with all of humanity living in peaceful co-existence, and accepting G'd's supreme sovereignty. When this is fulfilled it will automatically take care of every need of every individual. This is why it would be inappropriate to make personal requests on this special day.
Elisha and the Shunammite woman
This insight helps us further to understand a famous story from Tanach that is related to Rosh Hashanah through an amazing explanation from the Zohar. In the Book of Kings II (4:8-14) it is described how the Prophet Elisha used to come to the Town of Shunam where he was hosted by a certain couple. At some point the hostess (known only as the Shunammite woman) suggested to her husband that they should make a special room and furnish it for their saintly guest who visited them on a regular basis. On one of his visits, the Prophet told his assistant, Geichasi, to tell the lady of the house that in appreciation for all their effort to make him feel welcome, he wished to reciprocate in some way. He suggested that he could speak to the king on her behalf. The hostess declined saying, "I sit in the midst of my people." The Prophet continued to inquire what he could do for her. To this Geichasi advised that the couple had no children and the husband was getting old. The Zohar explains that this took place on Rosh Hashanah, and that Elisha actually offered to intervene on her behalf before G'd, the King of kings. It seems unbelievable that a childless woman would decline such a generous offer from the spiritual leader of that generation. Normally, people would line up for such a great opportunity, yet she declined. Maybe the answer is that on this Day of Judgment this pious woman felt that it was inappropriate for her to make any personal request. When she said to the Prophet that "I am in the midst of my people" she meant that he should pray not just for her but for the whole nation. In the end the Prophet blessed her and promised her that she would have a son, and the prophecy was fulfilled the following year.
Ten Days of Repentance
From Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur is known as the Ten Days of Repentance. During this time, we have a unique opportunity that G'd in His great mercy has provided us with. We can gain a better understanding of the uniqueness of this opportunity from a homiletical exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makkos 2:6). The Talmud says: "Wisdom was asked, what should be the punishment of the sinner? To this Wisdom answered: 'Let evil pursue the sinners.' Prophecy was asked, what should happen to the sinner? Prophecy answered: 'The person who sinned should die'. The Torah was asked, what should be the punishment of the sinner? The Torah answered: 'Let the sinner bring an offering and be forgiven'. Finally, G'd was asked, what should happen to the sinner, and G'd said, 'Let the sinner repent and he will be forgiven." When wisdom was asked what should happen to the sinner, it answered from a human perspective. Common wisdom dictates that the sinner has to feel the consequence of his transgression and suffer. When prophecy was asked, it said that a person who disobeys G'd's commandments deserves the death penalty. This person who lives by the grace of G'd, and his every movement is made possible by G'd, how can he go and abuse these great gifts and transgress what G'd told him to do? By the standards of prophecy, this person deserves to lose his lease on life. When the Torah was asked, it answered according to the Torah laws. In the Torah we find that for certain sins a person can achieve forgiveness by bringing an offering. However, G'd in His great mercy, is ready to forgive and override the punishment, provided that the person repents.
Although we have the opportunity to repent all year round, during the Ten Days of Repentance there is a special Divine assistance for those who utilize these days to repent. Even if our judgment on Rosh Hashanah was not favourable, the Talmud (Yuma 85b) teaches that through repentance we can change the judgment and achieve forgiveness on the day of Yom Kippur (literally the Day of Forgiveness). Many people come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and say the prayers of confession with the congregation. However, if we sincerely want to repent and do teshuvah, this is not sufficient.
So how do we repent? Our sages teach that there are four main components to the process of repentance: (1) Stop doing the transgression; (2) Regret doing it; (3) Verbally confess to G'd what one did wrong; and (4) Take upon oneself never to repeat the transgression.
The Talmud (ibid, see also Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 606:1) teaches that G'd is not ready to forgive transgressions that involve other people, unless we obtain forgiveness from the one that was harmed or wronged. Obviously, it is better to repent before Rosh Hashanah and come as a repentant person on the Day of Judgment. The custom of blowing shofar in the Ashkenazi community, and saying special Selichos prayers in the Sephardi community, throughout the month of Elul, are supposed to remind us that we are approaching the Day of Judgment, and we must prepare ourselves appropriately. However, if we did not do teshuva and repent during Elul, we still have an opportunity to do so during the Ten Days of Repentance. This can change our verdict for the coming year.
Gates of Repentance not closed
It this week's parasha, it further says (ibid 30:11): "For this commandment that I command you today is not beyond you, and it is not distant. It is not in the heaven … and it is not across the sea. It is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart to perform it." The Ramban explains that these verses are referring to the commandment of doing teshuva that is mentioned in the portion just before. The Torah teaches us that wherever we are holding in our relationship with G'd and His commandments, no one is too far away or has sinned too much that the Gates of Repentance are closed. The Sforno adds that we do not need prophets who know what is happening in the heavens. Nor do we need to travel to distant countries to visit great sages in order to repent. It is a personal obligation that every single individual has the ability to accomplish on their own. It is in our mouths to express the confession. It is in our heart to regret what we have done wrong. And we can cease performing the wrongdoing, and undertake to do the right thing in the future. All of this will bring about G'd's forgiveness.
None too bad, none too good
This parasha speaks to every Jew. The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) teaches that even those who do not live a life of Torah observance, they still constantly perform many good deeds, and thereby fulfil a host of commandments. On the other hand, King Solomon says (Koheles 7:20): "There is no righteous person on earth who does only good and does not sin." No one is too bad, and no one is too good, to have the ability and need to repent. G'd provides all of us with our challenges and tests in life. We all have our successes and failures. Our sages teach that we need to make a sincere commitment that we want to get closer to G'd. We are not expected to rectify all our wrongdoings in a short few days. But we are expected to take the first steps in that direction.
Sometimes, with just one little deed one can change one's situation for life. Unfortunately, there are couples who do not have the strength to follow the rules of family purity, with monthly immersion in the mikvah. They do not realize the severity of the transgression and do not see the consequences of it. However, many of these couples have reached a stage in life where just one immersion in the mikvah would free them from this transgression for the rest of their lives. This is just one example how one minor deed can change one's situation for life. May we all have the strength to move closer to G'd through sincere repentance, and together with the whole Jewish nation and all humanity, be inscribed for a year with all the Divine blessings. And may we merit this year to reach the purpose of creation with the coming of Moshiach. Amen.
Wishing you and your loved ones L'shanah Tova Tikatevu V'techatemu.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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